(1798 – 1855)
or the Last Foray in Lithuania: a History of the Nobility
in the Years 1811 and
Translated from Polish by Leonard Kress
LET US LOVE ONE ANOTHER!
The last old Polish banquet – the centerpiece – an explanation of its figures –
transformations – Dombrowski’s gifts – more about the Penknife – Kniaziewicz
receives a gift – Tadeusz’ first official act after receiving his inheritance –
Gervazy’s remarks – concert of concerts – Polonaise – Let us love one another!
A thundering crash—the great door opened;
the Seneschal entered, wearing a hat,
his head held high. Yet he did not extent
greeting, and he failed to take the spot that
he usually claimed: for today he appeared
in new character—Marshall of the Court,
and using his official staff, he steered
the guests, starting with those of great import,
directly to the places he assigned,
just like a master of ceremonies.
He circled and he led, his path designed
to accommodate the authorities
first—so the Wojewoda’s Official
took the most prominent spot a velvet chair
with ivory arms, cushions lush and full,
to his left, Kniaziewicz, Pac, Malochowski,
and the handsome wife of the high Official.
Farther back sat officers and ladies,
young and old, arranged by the Seneschal
in alternating pairs, trying to please.
Among this group landowners were include,
placed where order and decorum suited.
Meanwhile, the Judge had politely withdrawn
from the banquet, and by the road outside,
was talking to some peasants on the lawn.
He led them to a table set beside
the garden, seating himself at one end,
placing the parish priest at the other.
Tadeusz and Zosia did not intend
to sit and feast; instead they rushed to gather
food and drink, eating as they walked, to serve
the seated peasants, for custom bespoke
that new lords and ladies of the manor observe
this rule: First you must serve the common folk.
Inside the guests who waited for their food
were marveling at the great centerpiece,
whose precious metal and workmanship stood
at equal level, value never to decrease.
According to legend, Prince Radziwill
The Orphan had to order it from the Venice
court, to be adorned in the Polish style.
The centerpiece had later disappeared
back when the Swedes invaded the nation,
yet it mysteriously reappeared
in this country gentleman’s mansion.
And now it had been polished for the meal;
placed on the table—huge as a coach wheel.
The centerpiece was completely coated
from rim to rim with sugar and meringue,
as though a fake winter landscape floated
in mid-air. A dark forest was growing
in the center, groves of rich confection;
on either side were different homes and huts,
a peasant village, and at close inspection,
a settlement which a manor abuts.
They were not covered with hoarfrost or ice,
but sugar spun into a snowy froth.
Tiny porcelain figures further entice
the eye, which, by now, is totally loath
to look away; for all these figures wear
Polish costumes—and their poses depict
some great event. They were made with such care;
you’d think that they might cry if they were pricked.
The guests were curious—what do they show?
The Seneschal rose, starting to explain;
he spoke and the vodka began to flow:
“With your permission, honored gentlemen
and ladies, the countless figures you see
depict the history of the Polish
District Assemblies—voting, victory,
triumph, dispute. So let me explain this,
for I have guessed the meaning of this scene.”
“There, on the right, countless nobles gather
to feast, before the Diet will convene;
although the banquet is prepared, they’d rather
stand in groups, hold counsel, deliberate—
a man right in the center of each pack,
while those around him listen and debate;
their eyes were open wide, jaws hanging slack.
An arm is waving in the air—something
new is expounded by an orator;
see how his finger explicates, marking
on his palm. Each orator is speaking for
his own candidate, and his impression
can be read auditors’ expression.”
“There, in another group, a noble stands,
hand thrust into his belt, as urgently,
he listens to the orator’s demands.
another cups his ear and silently
twirls his long mustache, taking in the speech,
storing it deep in memory for now.
The orator is pleased that his words reach
receptive ears—he has converts. To show
he’s sure, he pats the pockets of his coat,
for inside them he seems to have their vote.”
“Another group, and something else takes place;
the speaker grabs his listener by the belt.
They pull away and each one turns his face;
one bristles with the anger that he felt;
he shakes his fist to halt the speaker’s tongue;
apparently, the praises he believes
were ones that for another candidate were sung.
And so this man, dropping his forehead, heaves
his body like a bull at the speaker,
who tries to seize him by the horn.
And since, of course, one of them is weaker,
swords are drawn, while others flee in alarm.”
“Another gentleman, off to the side,
tries to remain neutral, but vacillates.
Then, closing his eyes, he lets fate decide
his vote: he lets his fingers halt debates;
if his thumbs meet, he’ll vote affirmative,
but if they miss, he’ll cast a negative.”
“Behind that scene, a convent dining hall
has been transformed by noblemen to hold
a District Assembly. After roll call,
the old men sit on benches, while the bold
young nobles, standing, gaze over their heads,
curious to see the District Marshall,
who raises up an urn and then proceeds
to empty the balls. When he’s counted all,
the apparitors raise their arms at once;
the newly elected names they announce.”
“And yet, one noble clearly disagrees:
he’s stuck his head out the window and stares
with looks so bold and insolent, he’d seize
the entire halls just to give some scares.
Who couldn’t guess that man shouts ‘Veto!”
See how his boastful challenge stirs the crowd
outside. See them rush to the door and go,
sabers drawn, to the kitchen. Yes, a loud
and bloody battle will break out—but no!
Pay close attention—in the corridor
a priest dressed in chasuble advances.
He brings the host and raises it, this prior,
led by a boy in surplice, who distances
the men by ringing a bell with great zeal.
And once they see this man of God, they sheath
their swords and quickly cross themselves and kneel.
And wherever the old priest turns, beneath
his upraised arms, the clinking weapons cease;
for all is calm and all returns to peace.”
“Too bad you younger men can not recall
just how it was among our turbulent
sovereign nobles. Though arms were held by all,
when true faith flourished, we ruled by consent.
Laws were respected and no need for police;
liberty grew with order, and glory
from abundance--for those were our decrees.
in other lands, I’ve heard a different story:
the government maintains soldier and gendarme,
constable and police; but it takes the sword
to guarantee one from another’s harm;
there is no liberty; please take my word.”
The Chamberlain tapped his tobacco case.
“Pan Seneschal,” he said, “could you postpone
until later your history of this place?
We hear, and yet our stomachs growl and groan;
don’t take offence—we’d like to eat quite soon.”
At this the Seneschal laid down his staff.
“Your excellency,” he said, “one scene remains
to be explained, then you can eat and laugh.
The maker of this centerpiece took pains
to represent the Diet’s history.
Right here the new Marshall is carried out
by his followers, and to his glory,
the nobles toss their hats up and they shout,
‘Vivat!’ Yet the outvoted candidate
lingers alone; upon his gloomy brow
his cap pulled down. Nearby, his wife, in wait
has guessed the outcome. Now she too will show
signs of defeat, thinking of the honor
she might receive, now lost for three more years.
Luckily the maid is almost upon her,
for she’s about to faint or burst in tears.”
Finally, the Seneschal gave them signal
that he’d concluded his lengthy accounts;
servants entered in pairs; their trays were full
of food: first soup was served in great amounts—
beet soup known as royal and rich clear broth
prepared with skill as in old Polish times.
Into this broth, the Seneschal throws both
tiny pearls and a golden coin, which chimes
against the pot. Such broth, it’s often said,
fortifies the health, purifies the blood.
And yet what words could possibly evoke
delicious tastes, no longer known or served:
arkus, kontuz, blemas: the first egg yoke
mixed with sweet curds and whey; then veal, reserved
from birth for sausage, within a chicken broth;
the last, a rich and sweet almond aspic.
Then the main courses came: cod stuffed with both
civets and musk; and on the side were thick
caramels, dried plums, pinenuts, and creams.
But the fish were the most extraordinary—
salmon from Carpathian Mountain streams,
sturgeon, caviar from Venice and Turkey;
pike and pickerel, almost a yard long;
capon carp and noble carp an flounder.
Last, they brought a dish, aroma strong;
a masterpiece, an uncut fish, rounder
and longer than most. Only the head was fried;
the center had been baked, and the broad tail
was a ragout, with sauces on the side.
The guests, little concerned about this detail,
don’t care about this culinary puzzle;
they eat like soldiers in a castle stormed;
abundant Hungarian wine they guzzle.
Meanwhile, the centerpiece had been transformed.
Stripped of its snow, it turned to shades of green,
as the light froth of ice began to thaw,
revealing a base heretofore unseen.
And so, a new season the guests now saw,
sparkling with green, a multi-colored spring.
The grains come forth, as though with yeast they grow;
saffron wheat and gilded corn now mixing
with rye, in silver leaves and shiny dew;
and buckwheat chocolate was manufactured,
and apples and pears, blooming in an orchard.
The gifts of summer do not last for long;
in vain they beg the Seneschal to halt
the change—for they would like him to prolong
the sun. But it is spinning through the vault
of heaven, as the seasons change. Already,
the grain is painted with gold, and the heat
inside causes a thaw that is steady.
Grass turns yellow to show summer’s retreat,
and crimson leaves slowly begin to fall,
as though a wind had stripped the leaves all bare:
once adorned, they now stand naked and tall—
cinnamon sticks and twigs, placed with such care,
to simulate pine groves in such a way
that needles could be made from caraway.
The guests who had been drinking cups of wine
tore off the branches, stumps, and roots to chew
as snacks. The Seneschal, proud of his fine
centerpiece, circled it to get a better view.
General Dombrowski feigned astonishment:
“May I ask if these are Chinese shadows,
or has Pinetti the Conjurer been sent
from Italy with his black magic shows?
Are such displays so commonplace these days
in Lithuania? These customs leave me awed.
tell me—I’m unfamiliar with your ways,
you know I’ve spent all of my life abroad.”
The Seneschal replied and bowed to this:
“No, Pan General, this is no godless art,
but a clear reminder of the glorious
banquets, which were such a necessary part
of life among our magnates, when Poland
was blessed by God with happiness and might.
All that I’ve done, I hope you understand,
I’ve read about in books. You are quite right
to act astonished; such ancient custom,
alas, has all but vanished from our land.
These days new fashions spring upon us from
God knows where. Young men say they cannot stand
such vast expense; grudgingly serving drink and food;
they’re stingy with this fine Hungarian wine;
they would prefer to serve something that’s rude
and devilish—adulterated champagne
from Moscow. Then, following their meager dinner,
they’ll lose so much at cards, that the winner
a hundred gentlemen could entertain.
And yet, I feel I must be very frank
and tell how even our most honored guest
(I truly hope he won’t think me a crank)
scoffed at me when I reached into the chest
to get this masterpiece. Antiquated,
he called it, a tiresome contrivance,
better left for children. And he related
how he thought it unfit, at variance
with such a gathering of distinguished men.
And Judge, even you said they’d all be bored.
But after all, it is my own opinion,
having observed our guests lack of discord
and great astonishment—this centerpiece
was well worth it. Besides, when again
will we have so many dignitaries?
You see, Pan General, there’s much to gain
in a banquet, by learning this fine art;
for when you entertain foreign monarchs—
yes, even Napoleon Bonaparte—
let me conclude my talk with these remarks.”
A murmur of voices was heard outside
shouting, “Long live Maciek the Steeplecock!”
The crowd pushed through the door by Maciek’s side;
then th Judge then took his guest with an arm-lock,
and happily led him to his special place
among the other honored guests. He said,
“Maciek, only a bad neighbor would fail to grace
our dinner table. “It’s almost time for bed;
“I try to eat early,” Maciek replied,
I came only out of curiosity,
not hunger. Even if I really tried,
I couldn’t stay away—I had to see.”
He overturned his plate to show the room
he would not eat, and silenced into gloom.
“Pan Dobrznski,” General Dombrowski
said to him, “Are you the famous swordsman
from the time of Kosciuszko, the very
Maciek know for his Switch? But this I can
not understand, you are healthy and spry,
after so many years—look how I’ve aged.
Kniaziewicz, too, has grayed and soon will die,
but you could hold your own if war were waged
today; you could compete with younger men;
your Switch still blooms! I’ve heard you have a thrashing
to the Moscovites. Where are your brethren?
I’d love to see those pocketknives slashing,
those razors shaving, those Lithuanian
relics, the last of their kind, so dashing.”
“General,” replied the Judge, “they all fled
after the victory. Refuge they sought
in the Warsaw Kingdom. They are not dead;
I’m sure they joined the Legions where they fought.”
“It’s true,” a young squadron chief interrupted,
“One of my men, a scarecrow with a mustache,
was a cavalry major who disrupted
so many enemy camps with his lash.
This Dobryznski calls himself The Baptist;
Mazovians call him The Lithuanian
Bear. But if the General insists,
I’ll order my sergeant to bring him in.
“More of his clan,” a lieutenant added,
“I’ve seen a soldier who is called The Razor,
and one who hauls a blunderbuss, who’s led
a band of grenadiers, one a chasseur.”
“But what about their chief?” the General
questioned. “I want to know about this Penknife,
whose miraculous deeds the Seneschal
has extolled, whose deeds seem larger than life.”
“This Penknife,” the Seneschal responded,
is not exile, though he was in fear
that by an inquiry he would be hounded.
The poor devil, all winter long was near
enough, hiding himself in nearby forests.
Now he’s returned, for in these times of war,
we need just such a knight who’s face all tests;
though it’s a shame his youth we can’t restore.
But here he is….” The Seneschal pointed
into the vestibule, where villagers
and servants were huddling in a disjointed
mass. Above their heads, one bald head towered,
shining like the full moon. Three times, at least,
it emerged and once more it disappeared
into a cloud of heads, as towards the feast
he advanced and bowed to the nobles’ cheers.
“Most excellent Hetman of the Crown, or is
it General, whichever is correct,
I am the Warden Rembajlo, and this
is my Penknife—you’ve heard of its effect.
It’s not the handle, not the inscription;
its fame stems from the temper of its blade.
You have already heard the description
of its deeds, and praise for the hand that made
it work. My service is long and faithful;
not just my homeland but Horeszkos’ too,
a clan whose virtues all nobles extol.
Milord, I do not think a scribe an do
with figures and pens to keep his books exact
what I, with my Penknife, can accomplish—
it would tax his powers to add and subtract,
for many heads I’ve lopped off with a swish;
and yet, my sword has not a single notch;
no murderous deed has ever tarnished it.
For oftentimes I would prefer to watch
from a safe distance, preferring to hit
only in warfare or else in a duel.
Only one time an unarmed man did fall
beneath my blade, and he was just a fool,
for whom Our Lord will grant rest eternal.
His death, my witnesses must surely know
was just—it was Pro Publico Bono.”
“Show us,” replied the laughing General,
“this famed Penkife, this executioner’s
delight.” He struggled to raise it with all
his strength, then passed it on to the others.
In turn they gripped the hilt; only a few
could raise it up. Perhaps the famed Dembinski
could handily brandish it, with this two
powerful arms—this the men could agree,
but he was away, and of those present,
only the squadron chief Derwinski
and Rozycki, the platton lieutenant
managed to swing this pole from iron cast,
from hand to hand, in turn, as it was passed.
But General Kniaziewicz, the tallest,
turned out to be the strongest of the group,
seizing the sword as if it were the smallest
rapier, and swinging it with a great swoop.
He brandished the blade, which flashed like lightning,
calling to mind old Polish fencing moves:
cross stroke, mill, the crooked slash, the frightening
downward blow, the stolen slash (a jab that proves
the fencing master), attitudes of tierce
and counterpoint, which is the former in reverse.
While he displayed his fencing skills to all,
Rembajlo the Warden embraced his knees,
and at each turn of sword, he gave a wail.
“General, I see that you’ve learned Pulaski’s
thrust, that you fought with the Confederates.
There is Dzierzanowski’s attack, and there
is Sawa’s move; you must have learned these hits
from Maciek Dobrzynski’s old hand, but where
did you learn that other? And not boast,
but that slashing stroke is my own invention,
known in Rembajlo village by a host
of Rembajlos only. When they mention
that move, they speak of it as Milord’s Thrust.
Who showed that grip to you? I feel at peace
knowing such skill is held by one I trust.
For many years, my haunting fears increased,
after my death, my sword might rust away—
but now it will not rust! Please, General,
tell our youth not to use this thin epee,
this German billiard cue, fit for a girl.
It makes me sad to see one on a belt.
I lay my Penknife at your feet—my most
dear possession, for which I’ve always felt
so much. I never had a wife to boast
about, nor children; yet this very sword
was my wife and child, the one who kept
me company, stirring when I stirred,
always by my side, whenever I slept.
When I grew old it hung upon the wall
like the Jews’ Commandments. I planned to store it
with me in the grave—that thought I recall,
now that I’ve found a new owner for it.”
The General, smiling, was clearly moved.
“Comrade,” he said, “if you would yield to me
your wife and child, the only things you loved,
you’d be a childless and solitary
widower—what sort of compensation
could I provide to sweeten your old age?”
“Am I Cebulski?” he cried with indignation,
“who gambled away his wife, played cribbage
with Moscovites? We have all heard that song.
It brings me joy to know my sword will shine
before the world, held by a hand so strong.
Remember, General, lengthen the line
of your strap, for the blade is very long;
and always when you slash, make your attack
cutting from the left ear, using both hands;
then cut straight from the head down to the stomach.”
The General, taking the sword, commands
his servants to place it in a wagon,
for it is much too long for him to wear.
And what became of it has long been one
of the great mysteries. No doubt you’d hear
many versions, repeated every year.
Dombrowski turned to Maciek: “Why are you
so displeased? Its seems that our arrival
has made you sour. What does your heart do,
if not skip a beat, when you see, in full
regalia, the gold and silver eagle?
When the trumpets blast Kosciuszko’s reveille?
Maciek, I thought the sight of such regal
forces might stir you, but if you can’t be
urged to draw your sword or mount your horse,
at least you’ll drink and join in with your friend
to toast Napoleon’s health, and, of course,
the hope that Poland’s slavery will end.”
“Hah!” said Maciek. “I see what’s happening.
But don’t you know, two eagles will not nest
together; it seems that you have been riding,
Hetman, a horse with piebald back and chest.
The Emperor’s a hero; we expend
much talk of this subject. And both Pulaskis
often said, when others would defend
DuMorouier the French agent and his decrees,
that Poland was in need of a hero
who was Polish—not French, not Italian,
a true Piast—Jan, Jozef, Maciek, or so….
And the army! For the Polish nation?
Fusileers, Grenadiers, and Sappers!
There are more German titles in this group
than national. There might as well be Tartars
or Turks—who could understand such a troop?
Or Schismatics, whose faith in God is lacking—
I’ve seen how they assault peasant women;
they’ve been plundering churches, pillaging.
The Emperor is bound for Moscow, but when
he goes without God’s blessing, he will find
the road quite long. I’ve heard that he’s incurred
the Bishops’ wrath.” Here Maciek stopped and dined;
dipped bread in soup, leaving off his final word.
Pan Maciek’s words stung the ears of his host.
Young men grumbled. Compelled to intervene,
the Judge announced that joy was not all lost:
the third betrothed pair at the door was seen.
It was the Notary. And yet he had
to introduce himself, unrecognized,
since in his Polish clothes he wasn’t clad.
Telimena, his wife-to-be, legalized
her wish that he renounce his dear Kontusz,
placing a clause in the marriage contract
to make him change his wardrobe in a rush.
And so, the Notary now wore, in fact,
a French frockcoat. Yet it was clear to all
that this outfit deprived him of his soul.
He strode as though he was afraid he’d fall,
rigid as though he’d prepared for this role
by swallowing his walking stick. He dared
not glance about; he held his composure,
yet all could see just how this bridegroom fared;
a close examination shows his torture.
He doesn’t know to bow, or where to place
his hands—this man, once so fond of gesture.
He tucks his hands into an empty space,
feeling for his sash—no longer worn—
only to stroke his stomach. Noticing
his grave mistake, he face begins to turn
crimson; and then, to a distinct hissing
of whispers, he hides them in his pockets,
advancing through a dense thicket of jeers.
the thought of this frock fills him with regrets
and shame, as though disgraced among his peers.
Spotting Maciek, this quickly turned to fears.
The Notary and Maciek had been friends;
tet Maciek casts a glance so furious,
the Notary turns pale and soon defends
himself, by buttoning up his curious
frockcoat, thinking Maciek might plunder it
with his glance. But Maciek only yells out twice:
“You idiot!” And too disgusted to sit
any longer, too shocked to give advice,
he rose, gave no farewell, and quickly went,
mounting his horse, back to his settlement.
But soon the Notary’s fair beloved,
Telimena, displayed her ever radiant
beauty; everything from her head to toe proved
she knew the latest styles for this event.
The manner of her gown and her coiffure
a pen could not describe; perhaps a brush
could paint the tulle, the muslin, the cashmere,
the lace, the pearls and precious stones, the blush
upon her cheeks, the look within her eyes…
The Count was astonished to recognize
his former love. He rose from the table,
searching for his sword. “It can’t be you!”
He cried. “Here I am, yet you are still able
to clasp another’s hand? How could you do
this thing? Unfaithful creature! Fickle soul!
You’d hide your face beneath the earth in shame;
have you forgot your vows? A deed so foul!
Why have I worn your ribbons—for a game?
Woe to the rival who’s caused this affront.
Over my dead body he’ll have to walk
to reach the altar—to pay for this stunt.”
The guests rose up amid increasing talk;
the Notary was horrified at first.
As the Chamberlain rushed to reconcile
the rivals, Telimena, fearing the worst,
took the Count aside. In her own style,
she slowly whispered: “I am still not married
to the Notary; if you’re truly hurt,
tell me right away, nothing’s been agreed.
But tell me soon, you must be brief or curt—
do you love me, or have your feelings changed?
Are you prepared to wed this very day?
I’ll cancel all the plans that I’ve arranged;
I’ll leave the Notary. What do you say?
To this the Count replied, “Oh, woman, strange,
incomprehensible, and once poetic;
you now appear prosaic; what great change
has made you seek a marriage that would stick
chains around your hands instead of souls?
Please believe me, there are offers of love,
and some of them are made without avowals;
there are ties without obligations of
marriage. For when two hears can burn apart,
just like the stars they can communicate.
Who knows, the earth reveals his heart,
circling the sun, pursuing the moon, his mate;
he may gaze upon her, but not come near.”
“Enough of this; I’m not some heavenly sphere.”
She said. “But by the grace of God, female.
I know the rest; it’s all nonsense to me.
Now I warn you, if from your word, I fail
to marry, if you disrupt this ceremony,
God is my witness, I will attack you
with my sharp nails.”
“I won’t” the Count replied,
“disturb your happiness, that would not do.”
With sad eyes and contempt, he turned aside,
trying to punish his unfaithful love,
and with interplanetary fire, tried
another young lady’s spirit to move.
The Seneschal, eager to restore peace,
brought up once more his much beloved story—
the wild boar amid the Nalibok trees,
when Prince Rejtan sought to reduce the glory
of Prince de Nassau. But no one really cares;
they finish off their ices, then proceed
to leave the castle, eager for fresh air.
The peasants were passing pitchers of mead
outside; their food hand long since disappeared.
Musicians’ instruments were set in tune.
All were anxious to dance, yet two whispered
off to the side—they would not break off soon.
Tadeusz spoke: “Zosia, , we must discuss
this matter that has occupied my mind.
my Uncle knows; he leaves it up to us.
According to law, the village behind
the castle is part of my inheritance.
And yet, as my wife, a considerable
part falls to you; let’s leave nothing to chance;
now that we have Poland, we are able
to profit much from this fortunate change;
but what will the peasants gain from our luck?
Simply another master they’ll exchange.
They were governed with kindness, never struck,
but what will happen to them when I’m gone?
I am a soldier; we are both mortal;
I am human too, and I fear my own
caprices; I’d feel more secure if I could tell
the authorities that the peasants’ fate
will fall under protection of the law..
We’re free; why not let them enjoy our state?
We’ll give them land, and not just hay and straw—
the land where they were born, that they’ve acquired
through bloody toil, the work that makes us rich.
But let me warn you, we will be required
to live more modestly, to make a switch,
if we indeed give our peasants the land;
our income will decrease. Now I was raised
in modest circumstance; nothing grand
and extravagant would ever be praised.
Yet you, Zosia, of higher birth; you spent
your youth in Petersburg; what kind of life
could you expect within a place so distant
from society? You’d be a farmer’s wife!”
Zosia replied, “I don’t have the authority;
as a woman—it clearly rests with you.
I am too young, but know that I’ll agree,
wholeheartedly, whatever you decide to do.
If freeing the peasants makes us more poor,
then you, Tadeusz, will become more dear.
My birth means nothing to me any more;
I was orphaned, and the terrible fear
that I’d remain, Soplicas have dispelled—
in your home, as a daughter, I have dwelled.”
“I don’t dread country life; if long ago
I lived in the city, it’s long forgotten.
To be with hens that cluck, roosters that crow,
that’s sure to give me more pleasure than ten
St. Petersburgs. If I have sometimes yearned
for balls and gatherings, well that was childish;
that life would bore me now; I learned
last year in Vilno, when all winter I would wish
to be back home, living the life for which
I was born. And I don’t dread the labor;
I’m young, healthy; for me it’s not a switch.
I wear a ring of keys; I know which door
each fits—you’ll see, I can manage the household.”
No sooner had Zosia clearly extolled
the virtues of being a farmer’s wife,
than Gervazy approached, amazed and glum:
“I’ve heard the Judge speak of freedom and life,
but I can’t comprehend where this comes from.
what has liberty to do with peasants?
It sounds to me just like some German notion.
Now I trace origins back to events
in paradise: all true men of devotion
agree—we’re all descendents of Adam.
But I have heard that peasants stem from Ham,
Jews from Japhet. We nobles come from Shem,
and it is our job to watch over them.
But now the parish priest is teaching us
that this was true according to old law;
that all has changes, of course, it’s obvious—
that though Lord Jesus was born in the straw,
surrounded by Jews in a peasant’s barn,
he, who descended from kings, had this plan,
that all men, yes, even those poorly born,
would be equal to the wealthiest man.
That is the way it is, so it must be,
especially since I’ve heard that you’ve agreed,
my Lady, and you have authority.
But if, indeed, the peasants will be freed,
I warn you, if this liberty lacks
meaning, if it’s nothing but an empty word…
For the Muscovites imposed such a tax
when the late Pan Karp’s serf-freeing occurred,
the peasants starved, having been taxed threefold!
So this is my advice; you must follow
the old custom and have them ennobled;
a coat of arms, a crest, you must bestow.
Zosia should give the half-goat to her fold;
Tadeusz should give the star and the crescent.
If this is done, I will accept reforms,
the full equality of each peasant
bearing, for all to see, a coat of arms.”
“But you, Tadeusz, made your wife upset.
The loss of land will make you impoverished.
God forbid, a Lord’s grand-daughter won’t get
calluses, not at least until I’ve perished.
I have a plan; the castle has a chest
in which the Horeszko table service
is kept, along with signet rings, the best
pearl necklaces, rich plumes, marvelous
that the Pantler buried deep in the ground,
that I’ve protected from all plunderers.
I’ve guarded them and kept them safe and sound
from Muscovites and you, dear Soplicas.
I also own a good-sized pouch that’s filled
with my own thalers; and this small amount
was saved through years of service, from gifts willed
to me. I thought I’d use my golden coin
to mend the castle walls, but now it seems
the farm will need these pennies. I will join
you, Pan Soplica, and what Zosia deems
fit for me—that I’ll happily accept.
I’ll rock to sleep a third generation
of Horeszkos; your child will be adept
with my Penknife, if that child is a son.
A son, I’m sure, for when the land is torn
by war, new sons are always being born.”
Gervazy barely spoke his final word,
when Protazy walked up, quite dignified.
He bowed, then with a gesture self-assured,
withdrew from his Kontusz’s inside
pocket, a long panegyric, almost
two and a half sheets long, in rhyme.
A younger, non-commissioned officer composed
the poem—he had been famous at one time
for all the odes he wrote. Later he donned
the uniform, unable to retreat
from the habit of versifying on demand.
The first three hundred lines were quite a treat:
Thou art the one who has now sent
The exquisite bliss or torment.
When your sweet glance falls on Bellon,
Swords break, as though fell on.
This day cruel Mars yields to Hymen;
The hissing viper to his fen
Crawls back, soothed by your gentle palm;
The Hydra of Discourse is calm….
But just in time! There was lively applause;
Tadeusz and Zosia began to clap,
wishing he’d halt before the next clause.
This noise awoke the Judge from his short nap,
and at the parish priest’s instigation,
he read Tadeusz’ bold proclamation.
Barely had the peasants heard the news,
when they surrounded the young lord and fell
to their lady’s feet, where they refuse
to rise until they shout: “May you be well!”
In tears. Tadeusz cried: “Free citizens,
equals, fellow Poles!” And Dombrowski cried:
“to the common folk and to our defense!”
The peasants then repeated from the side:
“Long live our leaders and our new free choice!”
A thousand voices thundered in one voice.
Only Buchman stood apart from the joy;
he praised the plan but wished to modify,
appoint a commission that would employ
legal advisors…and to codify…
But Buchman’s point was met with levity;
it could not be applied with brevity.
Out in the yard, the officers now stood
beside ladies, in pairs, while village men
lined up next to theirs. No longer could
they wait: “Polonaise!” rang in unison;
the military band assumed its place .
But then the Judge addressed the General:
“I ask you, sir, today might we replace
this orchestra? Today we must recall
the ancient custom of our family
to celebrate just like a village ball.
The cymbal player stands, his hands yet free;
the fiddler has already dropped his jaw;
the bagpiper has bowed, he’d like instructions.
If we send them away, then some unwritten law
will be broken, and everyone will be
disappointed. The peasants only dance
to their own music; so let them feel free
to play—for everyone will have a chance
for a good time. Then your orchestra can
play later. He signaled and they began.
The fiddler rolled his sleeves up carefully;
he squeezed the fingerboard, rested the bridge
beneath his chin, and sent his bow quickly
across the strings--a race horse had no edge
on him. The bagpiper blew, inflating
his sack, and then began to flap his arm
as if it were a wing anticipating
flight—his puffed-out cheeks had all the charm
of the moon-faced children of Boreas.
A cymbalon player was all they lacked.
Of all the cymbalom players, one was
far superior—none had the impact
of Jankiel, who put all others to shame.
(Janiel had hid, God knows where, all winter;
but when the Generals appeared, he came.)
About his skill there was no dissenter;
he was the master and he was unequaled.
And so they begged old Jankiel to take part;
they pointed to the instrument, appealed
to his good sense, complimenting his art.
The Jew declined; he claimed his hands were stiff,
out of practice, and that he’d be embarrassed
to play in such a state. He felt that if
he did, the gentlemen would fail to be impressed,
three times he bowed and tried to back away;
but Zosia saw this modest ploy and ran
to him, bringing the sticks he used to play.
She smiled and curtsied in front of the old man,
and stroked his long gray beard: “Jankiel, please stay,
you promised me you’d play my wedding day.”
Jankiel was fond of Zosia, so he shook
his beard to show that he would not refuse;
then to the center of the crowd they took
a stool and placed the cymbalom he’d use
across his knees. He waits for the command,
meditative, like an old veteran,
called back to active duty for his land.
His grandsons lift, although they barely can,
a heavy sword, which once brought him good luck;
two pupils kneel beside the instrument
and tune the strings, testing as they pluck.
Jankiel half-shuts his eyes, becomes silent,
holding the hammers in the air a moment.
He lowers them—a triumphant measure
rings out; until he strikes the strings more briskly,
more like torrential rain than the pleasure
of good music. The crowd stares uneasily;
yet this is just a test; the storm grows soft;
Jankiel breaks off, holding the sticks aloft.
He played again; the think strings vibrated,
as though struck by the wings of a housefly,
so lightly that it seemed the sound abated.
The master turned his gaze up to the sky,
as though he was expecting inspiration,
surveyed his instrument, sure of his sill,
raised up his hands after a respiration,
then dripped them both at once—strings, once still,
resounded wildly when the hammers pounded;
listeners were shocked, and yes, astounded.
It seemed a Turkish Janissary band
marched up with clanging cymbals, bells, and drums,
inciting soldiers to martial command.
The Polonaise of the Third of May comes
breathing with joy upon the rippling strings.
Girls are eager to dance, boys take their place,
though some old men are thinking other things—
recalling the time before the disgrace,
those joyous years after the Third of May
Constitution, when they all celebrated
(all Senators and Deputies) all day
and night, when whole nation was elated.
They gave a rousing welcome to the King:
“Vivat!” they cried, “the Diet and the nation!”
and these Vivats they heard in Jankiel’s playing.
The music underwent a transformation:
the tones intensified, new rhythms shaped;
the master introduced a new false chord,
just like a hissing snake, or metal scraped
on glass, which sent a chill through the assured
listeners. They felt something sinister
intrude upon their joy, and so wondered
if the instrument went out of tune, or
if the master, once so skilled, had blundered.
But no, he struck these strings so traitorous,
disturbed the melody—this was his aim:
to split the chords with brash inglorious
tones, confederated to hurt and main
the harmony. At once the Warden knew
what Jankiel’s music meant. He hid his face
and cried: “I know that voice that rings untrue--
betrayed at Targowica, that disgrace!”
Then suddenly the strings snapped with a hiss;
the hammers rushed to the top of the scale;
and in new rhythms, reintroduced bliss,
until bass notes struck up another tale.
One could hear a thousand noises sweeping
across the strings—soldiers march off to war,
attack and fire; groaning children, weeping
mothers—the master evokes the horror
of war so well, the village girls shiver,
recalling the grief of the massacre
at Praga by the Vistula River,
the tale they’ve heard in song. But they are glad
when all the strings ring forth with joyous sound,
as if the master meant to choke these sad
outcries, beating them into the background.
No sooner had the listeners relaxed,
than once again the clanging strings grew calm;
a few strings buzzed, their tautness barely taxed
by lightly tapping sticks in Jankiel’s palm.
It seemed a fly or two tried to break free
from a spider’s web; and perhaps they did…
More strings joined in to build a harmony,
uniting legions of chords in splendid
new memories full of grief and sorrow.
They heard the wandering soldier’s song,
Through forest and wood we dutifully go…
(Half-dead from woe, hunger, he moves along,
to fall by the feet of his faithful steed,
the horse that will dig his grave with its leg.)
and yet, for more of this old song, they plead;
the soldiers recognize their lives and beg
to hear again, recalling times with dread
when they too sang—from their homes departing,
marching into the world, all those not dead
humming the tune, their arms and clothing carting,
cross land, sea, burning sand, and crippling frost.
And when in foreign lands they often camped,
hearing this song stirred them. All was not lost.
they bowed their heads, recalling how they tramped.
Then Jankiel strove to elevate the mood;
something unheard rang out; he calmly glanced,
surveyed the strings, and with both hands imbued
the music with such art, the hammers danced.
The strings resounded like a large brass band,
and from the trumpets wafted to the sky,
the march of triumph known to all—Poland
Has Not Yet Perished. This was followed by
March, March Dombrowski, as everyone cheered,
for Dombrowski himself already had appeared.
It seemed that even Jankiel was amazed
by his own playing; he dropped he hammers,
lifting his arm. When they were fully raised,
his fox-skin hat fell onto his shoulders;
he blushed; his gaze revealed his very soul,
the flush of youth revealed inside his stare.
At last the old man looked at General
Dombrowski, before he covered up his eyes
to hide his gushing tears. “We’ve had to wait
for many years with mournful wails and sighs
for your arrival. You’re almost as late
in coming to save us as the Messiah
is to us Jews. Long ago, wandering bards
prophesied throughout Lithuania;
heaven proclaimed it when comets flew towards
our land—so live, wage war….The old Jew wept
as he spoke, for just like a Pole he loved
his native land. To show his deep respect,
General Dombrowski, who was truly moved,
held out his hand to be kissed by the Jew.
Jankiel removed his cap and bowed down too.
It is time to begin the Polonaise:
the Chamberlain steps up and tosses back
his kontusz sleeves; he twirls and proudly displays
his mustache, choosing Zosia from the pack.
He bows, inviting her to lead the dance
with him; others line up in pairs behind;
after his signal, all couples advance.
Red boots glitter, sabers, lovingly shined,
and rich brocaded belts gleam in the sun.
The leader slowly treads, without effort,
but from each step and each deliberate motion,
his every thought and feeling they report;
right here he steps, as though he wants to ask
his partner a question; he leans his head
to whisper in her ear; she tries to mask
her face, to bashful to follow his lead.
He doffs his cap, and bows once more—she deigns
to glance at him, keeping her stubborn silence.
He slows the pace to see if she complains,
and smiles when she finally returns his glance.
Then, more quickly, sizing up his rivals,
he pulls his heron-flumed cap over his brow
and shakes it till it’s cocked just right and twirls
his mustaches again, satisfied for now,
the envy of all. All the couples follow
right in his tracks, though he’d like to escape
with his lady, and so he halts the flow,
raising his arms to change the dance’s shape.
No sooner does each pair approach, than he
humbly invites couples to pass him by—
while he withdraws somewhat meditatively.
And so the course is changed; but they reply
to his elusive move; couples pursue
insistently, and from all sides they snake
around. But then, to show his wrath is true,
the hilt of his sword he forcefully takes,
as if to say, I do not care for you
who envy me. His eyes are full of challenge,
advancing straight into the dancing throng;
they dare not block his path and rearrange
themselves, to fall in line before too long.
Exclamations chime from every side.
These are, perhaps, the last looks that they’ll get,
their final chance to view this dignified
dance, led in such a way—they won’t forget.
Couples followed, moving with pomp and joy;
the circle unraveled, then contracted—
a giant snake in some serpentine ploy.
The dappled folds and colors distracted;
the different uniforms, ladies and gents,
soldiers, glittering like the slithering scales,
so that the setting sun gilds these garments,
so bright above the turf and the fence rails.
Although the dance is spirited and quick,
Corporal Dobrzynski, still known as the Sack,
does not dance and does not hear the music;
he stands aside, ringing his hands in back,
recalling when he was Zosia’s suitor:
flowers gathered, baskets braided, birds’ nests
raided, earrings carved—how he had pursued her!
Ungrateful girl—he’d answer her requests;
such wasted gifts. And though she always fled
from him, although his father had forbidden,
he still went to gaze at her from the shed;
how many times within the hemp he’s hidden,
to watch her in the garden pluck out weeds,
pick cucumbers, or feed her poultry grain.
Ungrateful girl—not to care for his deeds!
He dropped his head, thinking of her disdain,
and whistled a Mazurka. Then he jammed
his cap over his ears and left the scene.
By the cannon which had been left unmanned,
picking some cards and hoping for a queen,
he joined some old campaigners sitting down.
He drank with them, hoping to lose the past,
and if not to sweeten his sorrow, then to drown
it, for Dobrzynski’s heart was constant and steadfast.
Zosia flutters about, and though she leads
the dance, she barely can be seen; the yard
is vast—she blends in with the plants and weeds.
Her dress is green; she has yet to discard
her wreath, garland, and flowers. And as she spins,
she disappears from sight, although she guides
the dance, showing where each new figure begins,
an angel directing the planetary tides.
Her place is revealed by the dancers’ eyes
and outstretched arms, as they gather around her.
In vain her partner, the Chamberlain, tries
to stay by her side, though she must defer
to one of his rivals; they’ve lost their place
as head couple; now they must quickly yield
to another pair, setting a new pace.
General Dombrowski now heads the field,
but not for long; another pair cuts in.
The Chamberlain, devoid of hope, walks off;
Zosia, wearied by this navigation,
meets Tadesusz, brushing against his cuff.
She stays with him to finish out the phrase
and ends the dance. To prove she is finished,
she carries out more wine on large round trays.
The evening warm and still, the sun diminished;
across the sky, here and there, clouds are strewn,
deep blue above but rosy in the west;
and these small clouds portend the best of fortune
and fine weather. A flock of sheep at rest,
some resemble; others look like wild ducks
in formation. In the west are curtains,
many folds of gauze, bright pleats and tucks,
pearly at the top, gilded where that wanes,
and purple in between. The sun still glows,
then slowly pales and grays; it cannot keep
its fire, and draws some clouds about it, bows
its head, and with one breath, it falls asleep.
The nobles continue to drink and toast:
“Vivat Napoleon, the Generals!
Vivat Tadeusz, Zosia, and their host,
the Judge. Vivat the married couples!”
They drank, praising themselves who attended,
those invited who couldn’t come, and all
their friends. And long before the night ended
they toasted the dead, sacred to recall.
And I was there among the guests and ate
their food and drank their vodka, wine, and mead;
all that I heard and saw about their fate
I’ve written in this book for you to read.